September 29, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Cubs - Braves


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
Atlanta 101 61 .623 907 740 .600 .284 .7179
Chicago 88 74 .543 724 683 .530 .258 .7096

Atlanta 5.60 .284 .349 .475 235 321 545 933
Chicago 4.47 .259 .323 .416 172 302 492 1158

Atlanta 4.57 .257 .327 .401 147 309 555 992
Chicago 4.22 .241 .324 .372 143 248 617 1404

It's amazing how much the style and strength of a team can change in just one year.

Last year, the Atlanta Braves won 101 games and the National League East division on the strength of their pitching-staff. They had Greg Maddux (16-6, 2.62 ERA), Tom Glavine (18-11, 2.96) and Kevin Millwood (18-8, 3.24), along with baseball's best bullpen. They were just 10th in the National League in scoring, but they were able to win because their pitching was the best in the league.

Fast forward to this season, and the Atlanta Braves have once again won 101 games and the NL East division. This time however, everything is reversed. They led the NL in runs scored and were just 9th in the league in runs allowed. Taking it even further, their bullpen went from the best in the league to perhaps the team's biggest weakness.

Last season, Atlanta relievers had a combined ERA of 2.60, the lowest in the National League. This year, they have a 4.01 ERA.

Last season, Atlanta relievers were worth a combined 91.5 "Adjusted Runs Prevented" according to Baseball Prospectus, which, again, ranked them first in the NL. This season, the Braves' bullpen was worth -9.0 (yes, negative 9.0) "Adjusted Runs Prevented," which ranks them 10th in the National League.

It's really an amazing and amazingly fast shift, and I am not quite sure which style gives Atlanta a better shot in the post-season.

My gut reaction is that having strong starting pitching, a great bullpen and a poor offense would be better for the post-season than having average starting pitching, a weak bullpen and a great offense. But I really have no idea for sure. I do know that, for the better part of the last decade or so, the Braves have relied upon strong pitching and mediocre offense, and their playoff results are mixed, to say the least.

In my preview of Atlanta's first-round matchup with the Giants in last year's playoffs, I asked the following (September 30, 2002):

The question will be, can the Atlanta offense score enough runs?

That is no longer an issue for the Braves, who feature the National League's most dangerous lineup and even have a good bench for the first time in a long time.

By going up against the Cubs, the Braves will be getting a taste of their own medicine from years past. Chicago has one of the NL's best pitching-staffs and a particularly strong starting rotation, just like Atlanta had for so many years.

Here are the starters Atlanta will see in this series:

                       IP      ERA      SO

Kerry Wood 211.0 3.20 266
Carlos Zambrano 214.0 3.11 168
Mark Prior 211.1 2.43 245
Matt Clement 201.2 4.11 171

Wood and Prior (my pick for NL Cy Young) ranked 1-2 in the NL in strikeouts and Clement and Zambrano ranked 10th and 11th. Clement is the old-man of the group at 29, while Wood is 26 and Prior and Zambrano are 23 and 22 respectively.

Four right-handers who throw some serious gas. They also have some flamethrowers in the bullpen, with their three top relievers, Kyle Farnsworth, Joe Borowski and Mike Remlinger, combining to strike out 241 batters in 213.2 innings. Not coincidentally, the 2003 Cubs set the all-time major league record for team strikeouts in a season, with 1,404.

What should be interesting about this matchup is that, while the Cubs strikeout more batters than any team in baseball history, the Atlanta Braves struck out just 933 times this season, the fewest in the National League.

I'm not exactly sure who is at an advantage in this situation, if anyone. The Cubs obviously rely on getting lots of strikeouts, which won't be easy to do against the Braves. On the other hand, the Braves offense also relies on not striking out much and making contact, which will be very hard to do against Chicago's pitching-staff. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

The way things are setup right now, the Cubs will be facing Russ Ortiz (21-7, 3.81 ERA) in Game One, followed by Mike Hampton (14-8, 3.84) and Greg Maddux (15-11, 3.97) in the second and third game. After that, the Braves could either go back to Ortiz on short-rest in Game Four and Hampton on short-rest in Game Five, or they could go with rookie Horacio Ramirez (12-4, 4.00) in Game Four and then come back with Ortiz on full-rest in Game Five.

I'm guessing they'll go with Ramirez, because he's been good this season and they will likely want Ortiz on full-rest for a potential deciding game. If the Cubs do get to face both Hampton and Ramirez in this series, I think that gives them an advantage, because Chicago has done very well against left-handed pitching this season.

2003 Cubs

vs Right .254 .317 .412
vs Left .276 .343 .429

That's a team-wide increase of 22 points of batting average, 26 points of on-base percentage and 17 points of slugging percentage when lefties are on the mound.

If Dusty Baker plays his cards right, he could throw out a lineup featuring the following numbers against lefties:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG

Sammy Sosa .333 .440 .571
Eric Karros .366 .441 .545
Moises Alou .346 .399 .567
Mark Grudzielanek .360 .444 .470
Ramon Martinez .346 .391 .494
Aramis Ramirez .285 .322 .562

Those are some scary numbers, particularly when you consider that all six of those guys are right-handed and that righties hit .278 off Hampton and .277 off Ramirez this season.

This feels very strange coming out of my mouth, but I really think the Braves do not have enough quality pitching. Ortiz has 21 wins this year, but he hasn't been that great, as his 3.81 ERA shows. Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, but he is nearing the end of the line and his ERA was right up around 4.00 too. And Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez going up against those six lefty-bashers that Chicago can put out against them doesn't look good.

In the bullpen, it is John Smoltz and a whole lot of iffy guys. The second-most reliable guy in the entire bullpen might be Ray King, which isn't a real good sign. Heck, even Smoltz is a little questionable because he is coming off of a recent injury.

Meanwhile, Kerry Wood twice and Mark Prior once in a 5-game series is pretty nasty, no matter how good the offense they are facing is. Is there one pitching matchup in this series that favors the Braves? Wood versus Ortiz? Zambrano versus Hampton? Prior versus Maddux? Clement versus Ramirez? I don't see one, which means it is going to be up to Atlanta's offense to put tons of runs on the board, like they have all season. I just don't see them doing that against Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and even Zambrano.

If Chicago can put together any sort of offense in this series and if Dusty Baker can effectively manage the bullpen, I think the Cubs will surprise a lot of people. If I were Dusty, I would shorten things up so that the only guys seeing the light of day in anything resembling a close game are Remlinger, Farnsworth and Borowski. That gives him a lefty, a righty and a closer, which should be plenty in the post-season, especially with Chicago's starters.

In the Boston/Oakland series, I went against the old baseball cliche and picked the good hitting over the good pitching. This time, I think I'll side with the pitching...

Cubs in five.

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